Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Beyond Political Theology: “Mysteries” of the Way and Its Power

A few weeks back, Joel Dietz had a guest post on mysticism. Here is another posting from Joel; as before, please address your comments and questions to Joel!

The Dao De Jing has been used to justify political regimes at many points in history and there are fairly obvious reasons for this, concomitant with the idea of philosophy more generally. The idea that there are gradations to knowledge implies that there are those who know more. The idea that there are those who know more implies that probably those who possess “true” knowledge should rule over those who do not. The apparent problems growing from this are aggravated when the process of “true” knowledge is attributed to those who possess and/or practice certain secrets that are not equally distributed — as is the case in here, in the Bhagavad Gita, and in texts part of the Platonic lineage.

The regime which ensues may be coercive or the product of passive assent, it may be progressive or regressive, benign or malignant — the method we shall use to judge any regime is not whether or not it is concomitant with the values of our age (i.e. globalized liberal democracy), but whether or not it is consistent with the teachings of the texts themselves. To this end, we must explicate what we may reliable infer about proper governance from this text.

My reading of the philosophy of these texts is substantially influenced by my documentation of the “esoteric” roots of these same texts, insofar as a hermeneutic for dealing with “esotericism” seems generally lacking. As stated in my previous essay, this seems a product of the term “mysticism” to refer to a large breath of activities described as “ineffable,” without understanding the more complex theoretical understanding underlying these activities (e.g. the practice of TCM or Ayurvedic medicine and the formation of related operative frameworks).

In the West, I have also argued this stems from a simplification of the religion of antiquity introduced by Christianity, wherein multiple levels of understanding (happening via “initiation” but understood along spectrum), was replaced by a binary understanding wherein the world was divided between pagan and Christian factions. This simplification relied on the use of a single faculty, “faith,” instead of the development of a number of different virtues. Later “faith,” when contrasted with the critical scholarship and “science” was easily rejected in favor of the latter.

However, it does not seem that science, at least as currently conceived, necessarily gives us the tools to examine more fully the Weltanschaung of previous civilizations, particularly when their proposed systems (including political systems) emphasize points other than our contemporary focus on “rights.”

This is to state that contemporary forms, whether aware or unaware, frequently make “man,” if not the measure of all things, the center of all things. This evolution, as is indicated in the story of the American revolution, but even more so in the case of the French, was counterpoised to the long standing emphasis on the rights of kings — a right that was claimed to be given by God. The invocation of the blessing of the chief or sole deity of course was also present in American democracy, whereby the human gained his ability to pursue his personal happiness as a consequence of divine action, a claim that ushered in a new age.

However, the birth of a language of “rights” is in some many ways foreign to the origins and best parts of monarchy, and we would be remiss if we discussed a political system only via its low points. The monarch at times (Bismark might be the most recent example), saw himself not as simply a claimant to divine power, but as the “vicar” of God on this earth and recipient of a divine mandate. In other words, the monarch could equally a recipient of a “calling” or “vocation” in a political field, just as the settlers of New England saw their collective calling to build a new Jerusalem (or for that matter, the calling of the ancient Romans to carry forward the legacy of Troy).

Puett, in his discussion of this subject in an article for the Cardoso Legal Review, helpfully turns to the last great theorist of pre-Democratic state power in the West, Carl Schmitt. Given the growth of modern political systems of an explicitly Christian understanding, the sovereign exists in the world of “faith,” which is to say, the “miracle.” The “divine” is experienced soley by abrogation of the existing material order. As Puett observes and Schmitt clarifies, this allows the sovereign to exist in a state of “exception,” which is a corresponding abrogation and suspension of the legal order.

Consequently, we are forced to agree with Schmitt insofar as our consideration, or lack thereof, of the “theological” conceptual roots of modern political systems, leads to something that can be considered  “political theology.” Even so, we find unwelcome results on both sides of this divide. Our ignorance or rejection of “theology” may make us incapable of dealing with other civilizational modes (potentially unsuccessfully attempting replace them with globalized liberal democracy), whereas our simple positive assertion may make us embrace any sovereign at all — once we are in the world of political “faith” there is nothing else we can do but to “believe.”

Unfortunately, this has the additional unwelcome result of putting us in mode of perpetual war and, consequently, permanent state of exception. If, according to a Christian understanding, the world is divided into Christian and pagan, the “enemy” is a continual other and there can be no peace until he is eliminated. Puett also appropriate discusses this in light of our present political situation, the extension of executive powers in the Bush era renders the head of the American state increasingly monarch engaged in perpetual war with “terrorism,” a trend also incisively discussed by Schmitt in his “Theory of the Partisan.” This indicates that we return to abstracted “theological” categories even when we try to avoid them — the ghosts of our past are present whether or not we attempt to forget them.

The question for American empire at this point may simply be the following: Is there any way to return to an unexceptional state of affairs once one has evoked the state of exception? The simple fact is that even if Bush led in evoking the types of civilizational and religious war with an “other,” America’s use of pseudo-religious metaphors and dramatic contrasts has not diminished — indeed, one might expect and observe that the claimed “right” of the cause may argued more violently as the observable benefit decreases.

With the Iraq war and elsewhere, our political leaders unsurprisingly call for “faith,” and it is here that a consideration of the political philosophy contained in “antique” texts may be most useful. If, in the world of the Dao De Jing, there is a division between those who have absorbed the multi-faceted message and those who exist solely in the world of words, the relationship between those who know and do not does not depend primarily on force.

In other words, there is a necessary relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. As also found in Confucian texts, the individual human’s efforts to cultivate him or herself have their expression in concentric circles, a positive energy radiating outwards from family to society at large, a situation that is referred to as “existing in accord with the natural order.” (自然).

Here one does not always find the modern emphasis on the importance of the individual human. A human may be expected to give his or her life for the sake of the greater community to which life is attached. Indeed, a greater expression of individual humanity is expected and stated as a possibility when a resonance is established between the individual and the way — than when any external object (e.g. riches) is taken as a proxy for success.

To a certain extent, it is not surprising that contemporary non-academic discussions on the “Dao” (e.g. the Dao of Pooh) have seen the emerging political order not in the assumption of a new strong man to replace and oppose the old, but in the gradual development of autonomous communities bound together by principles beyond the common desire for riches, a force that may be closer to that which bound the original settlers of America than the common motivations of political parties today.

This attempt to move beyond ideology, especially the exaltation of “mammon” excoriated by both early Christians, Stoics, Daoists, and Yogis, may mean that the ultimate bond that ensues as a replacement is also “ineffable.” People are bound together by a feeling much more like the often inexplainable features of romantic love (and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good), then demanding benefits supposedly due to them as the result of some social contract.

The alternative, and this is what I personally witnessed at the last conference on Buddhist-Daoist influence at Princeton, is to default to economic metaphors and modes of thinking. Although Puett raised the question of any alternative, there was no answer. All that remained were the same trends we find in many traditions: more priests, more mantras, more money.

Sadly, no Kenysian stimulus can solve the “existentialist” problem of detachment from a deeper stream of being such that we have no intuition and nothing other than economic metaphors and nothing can save us from having nothing but worthless green paper in our hands once we give way to overwhelming tendency to print money — a process that inevitably ensues once we have abandoned deeper intuitions embedded in our civilization in favor of the pied piper’s latest merry tune.

If we must abandon Schmitt, for he leaves us with nothing more than “theology” in an incomplete mode which depends on miracles instead of deepened understanding and intuition (such as I have argued was part of classical antiquity), we can at least thank him for pointing us to him who must ultimately have the final word, the old bard of the fairy queen and once merry England.

Hamlet, according to Schmitt, is trapped between the Catholic world of ghosts and the deconstructionst rational discourse of his mind, without a way to act and resolve the difficulties, a theme ultimately taken up by T.S. Eliot’s own discussion of fertility, the act that meets the shadow. Perhaps in a way of foreshadowing his own tragic career, Schmitt, like Hamlet, also ends on a tragic note about the possibility of reconciliation, the same note that is sounded by Shakespeare in his discussion of the dual bodies of Richard II.

That one can be a king, but not kingly, is in a certain sense derivative of the Aquinian division between essence and existence and a royal doctrine originating from this strain (extensively documented in Ernst Kantorowicz’s master work the King’s Two Bodies). Shakespeare’s work Richard II presents the case of his “dear, dear land” which is “now leased out,” due to a king who has chased after petty trifles and, in a manner of speaking, traded his kingdom for “a set of beads.”

Here, in the fairy queen, the king who is not a king, and the doubting son who refuses to perform the act that will gain him his father’s crown, we gain a shadow of an understanding of something “ineffable” yet deeper than potentially offered by those who offer us little more than inflation in rituals and ritual texts. In the world of Shakespeare, the remnants of civilization simply wait for a new conqueror to weave back together the deep strains of “this scepter’d isle… this seat of Mars.” Whether or not we will have a new Henry IV, or must wait for Fortinbras to arise from the empires of the East I suppose depends on what pockets of courage and honor remain in the West.

Ever since the Puritans set foot in New England, Hamlet is also everyman. The inner torment and struggles, which, in past epochs, may have been unique to the sovereign and his royal seers, are now exposed to each man and woman and hobbit who choose to follow the way. Whether or not we chose the path of material increase (and associated violence) or whether or not we choose being is up to us.

The Dao De Jing, or Book of the Way and its Power, can only be a guidebook for inner exploration and experience, not a textbook on how to rule, or worse, blueprint for a mantic printing press. In the way, as we accord ourselves to this natural order that is beyond words we serve as a magnetic point of attraction for a “way” truer than the latest magic tricks of financial wizards and political puppet masters. Which side do we stand on? As Hamlet says, “That is the question.”

Prior to his time at the University of Pennsylvania, Joel Dietz performed graduate work on political theory with Martin van Creveld at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

April 19th, 2012 Posted by | Daodejing, Politics | 5 comments

5 Responses to Beyond Political Theology: “Mysteries” of the Way and Its Power

  1. Huaiyu Wang says:

    Interesting!

    The Dao De Jing has been used to justify political regimes at many points in history…

    I am really not knowing much about this, but any concrete examples of the Dao De Jing being used by any political orders in Chinese history to justify their rules? … My shallow knowledge of CHinese history does not seem to offer any conspicuous example. Of course there are regimes (like Early Western Han) that takes Dao to guide their way of government, but that seems different from the use Dao as a form of justification for the authority of the governor….

  2. Manyul Im says:

    I kind of got lost from the paragraph that begins “In the West…” through the one that starts “Ever since the Puritans…” I thought there was going to be an argument to the conclusion that the Daodejing can’t be a textbook on how to rule, but it was difficult for me to follow the “exception” of sovereigns discussion and then the “existentialist” problem one, to that conclusion. Is it possible to outline the reasoning a bit more? Each piece seemed interesting but their inferential relationships were lost to me. Thanks!

  3. Bill Haines says:

    I found it extremely difficult to understand the piece, even at the level of the individual sentences. I have attempted to restate the whole thing, preserving the original paragraphing. In my paraphrase I have aimed to be exact and exhaustively complete. Joel, maybe you can correct my misreadings?

    —–

    The Dao De Jing has been used to justify political regimes at many points in history. It invites such use because it suggests that some people are wiser than others, which in turn suggests that some are qualified to rule over others. This last idea is problematic especially when combined with the idea that those who possess the greater wisdom actively withhold it from others (as advised in the Gita and sometimes in Platonic texts).

    The regimes one could build on such justifications may be of many kinds (coercive or products of passive assent, progressive or regressive, benign or malignant). Let’s try to work out a well-justified reading of what the text implies about governance.

    My reading of the Dao De Jing (and other texts I discuss here) is heavily based on my own original research into the “esoteric” roots of the texts, because anglophone scholarship offers no ready-to-hand hermeneutic for dealing with “esotericism.” Why do we lack that? As I suggested in my previous essay, I think it’s because we use the word “mysticism” indiscriminately for anything involving the “ineffable” (and hence don’t look into distinctions and details of the complex ideas understandings involved in e.g. traditional Chinese or Indian medicine).

    In the West, I have argued, this simple-minded view stems from Christianity’s simplification of other ancient religions, replacing the idea of successive levels of wisdom (accessible via “initiations”) with a single division between Christian and pagan, defined simply by the presence or absence of “faith.”

    Later, when “faith” was seen as contrasted with critical scholarship and “science,” faith lost out. However, science, at least as currently conceived, may not have the tools to understand the Weltanschauung of previous civilizations, particularly when their proposed systems (including political systems) emphasize points other than our contemporary focus on “rights.”

    This is because contemporary forms of thought, whether they mean to or not, frequently make “man” the measure or at least the center of all things. We can see the move toward this view in the American Revolution, but even more in the French Revolution, as these revolutions opposed the traditional view that kings rule by divine right. Granted, American revolutionary democratic ideology itself appealed to divine authority, claiming God as the source of e.g. the right to the pursuit of happiness: a claim that ushered in a new age.

    However, (though we may like the modern man-centered, rights-centered view) the language of “rights” is in some many ways foreign to the origins and best parts of monarchy, and we would be remiss if we discussed a political system only in language that obscures its merits. The monarch at times saw himself as the “vicar” of God on this earth and recipient of a divine mandate. (Bismarck might be the most recent important defender of this view in high public office.) In other words, the monarch could see his role as a “calling” or “vocation” in a political field, just as the settlers of New England saw themselves as collectively called to build a new Jerusalem (or the ancient Romans saw themselves as called to carry forward the legacy of Troy).

    Puett, in his discussion of this subject [?] in an article for the Cardoso Legal Review, helpfully turns to the last great theorist of pre-Democratic state power in the West, Carl Schmitt. According to Schmitt, in those modern political systems based on an explicitly Christian understanding, the sovereign exists in the world of “faith,” which is to say, the “miracle.” The “divine” is experienced solely by abrogation of the existing material order. As Puett observes and Schmitt clarifies, this view allows the sovereign to exist in a state of “exception,” which is a corresponding abrogation and suspension of the legal order.

    Schmitt’s account accurately describes anything that can properly be called “political theology.” But we have problems if we accept such a view, and problems if we reject or ignore it. On the one hand, if we reject or ignore it, we may be unable to understand other civilizational modes (and hence be too quick to try to replace them with globalized liberal democracy). On the other hand, simple “faith” may lead us to embrace any sovereign at all; for inside the world of political “faith” there is nothing one can do but “believe.”

    Unfortunately, “faith” so understood puts one in a state of perpetual war and perpetual exceptionalism. For example, if according to a Christian understanding, the world is divided into Christian and pagan, the “enemy” is always simply “other,” and there can be no peace until he is eliminated. Appropriately, Puett also discusses this problem in light of our present political situation. The extension of presidential power in the Bush era has put the American state inclreasingly into a position like that of a monarch, engaged in perpetual war with “terrorism.” (This trend is also incisively discussed by Schmitt in his “Theory of the Partisan.”) This recent historical phenomenon indicates that we return to abstract “theological” categories even when we try to avoid them — the ghosts of our past are present whether or not we attempt to forget them.

    The question for American empire at this point may simply be the following: Is there any way to return to a non-exceptionalist relationship with others once one has invoked the nation’s exceptional status? The simple fact is that even if Bush went farther than any others in invoking for the U.S. the notion of a civilizational and religious war with an “other,” America’s use of pseudo-religious metaphors and dramatic contrasts has not diminished — indeed, one might expect and observe that the claimed “right” of the cause is perhaps argued more violently as the observable benefit of the struggle decreases.

    Regarding the Iraq war and other matters, our political leaders unsurprisingly call for “faith,” and it is here that a consideration of the political philosophy contained in “antique” texts may be most useful. If, in the world of the Dao De Jing, there is a division between those who have absorbed the text’s multi-faceted wisdom and those who exist solely in the world of words, the relationship between those who know and do not does not depend primarily on force.

    In other words, there is a necessary relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. As Confucian texts suggest too, the individual human’s efforts to cultivate him or herself have their expression in concentric circles, in a positive energy radiating outwards from family to society at large, a dynamic that is referred to as “existing in accord with the natural order.” (自然).

    Some views of this form do not embody the modern emphasis on the importance of the individual human. Instead, they may expect a person to give his or her life for the sake of the greater community to which life is attached. Indeed, to accept the view that there is a resonance between the individual and the Way is to expect a greater expression of individual humanity than one expects if one’s idea of success is some external object such as riches.

    It is not completely surprising that the new political order advocated by contemporary non-academic discussions of the “Dao” (e.g. the Dao of Pooh) is not a new strong man to replace the old, but rather the gradual development of autonomous communities held together by principles beyond the common desire for riches, and thus by forces that may be closer to what united the original settlers of America than to the common motivations of political parties today.

    This attempt (that we see in those non-academic discussions) to move beyond ideology, and especially to move beyond the exaltation of “mammon” (excoriated by early Christians, Stoics, Daoists, and Yogis), may mean that if the discussions’ advocacy is successful, the bond that will ultimately arise will be “ineffable.” People are bound together by a feeling much more like romantic love (which is often unexplainable) and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, than by the hope for, or the activity of mutually demanding, benefits supposedly due to them according to some social contract.

    The alternative to this “ineffable” bond is to default to economic metaphors and modes of thinking, as I personally saw being done at the last conference on Buddhist-Daoist influence at Princeton. Although Puett asked whether we can find some alternative to such a default, there was no answer. All that was offered was the same trends we find in many traditions: more priests, more mantras, more money.

    Sadly, no such Keynesian stimulus can solve the “existential” problem: the problem that we are detached from a deeper stream of being and so have no intuition, we have nothing other than economic metaphors, and nothing can save us from having nothing but worthless green paper in our hands once we give way to the overwhelming temptation to print money — a process that inevitably ensues once we have abandoned deeper intuitions embedded in our civilization in favor of the pied piper’s latest merry tune.

    If we must abandon Schmitt, for he leaves us with nothing more than “theology” in an incomplete mode which depends on miracles instead of deepened understanding and intuition (such as I have argued was part of classical antiquity), we can at least thank him for pointing us to him who must ultimately have the final word, the old bard of the fairy queen and once merry England: Shakespeare.

    Hamlet, according to Schmitt, is trapped between the Catholic world of ghosts and the deconstructionst rational discourse of his mind, without a way to resolve the difficulties and act, a theme ultimately taken up by T.S. Eliot’s own discussion of fertility, the act that meets the shadow. Perhaps foreshadowing Schmitt’s own tragic career in a way, Schmitt’s article, like Hamlet, ends on a tragic note. The article ends on a tragic note about the possibility of reconciliation, the same note that is sounded by Shakespeare in his discussion of the dual bodies of Richard II.
    [ link to en.wikipedia.org ]

    The idea that one can be a king without being kingly is in a certain sense derivative from the Aquinian distinction between essence and existence and a doctrine about monarchy originating from this distinction (extensively documented in Ernst Kantorowicz’s master work [on medieval political theology] the King’s Two Bodies). Shakespeare’s work Richard II presents the case of his “dear, dear land,” which is “now leased out” because the king has chased after petty trifles and, in a manner of speaking, traded his kingdom for “a set of beads.”

    In these three Shakespearean characters—the fairy queen, the king who is not a king, and the doubting son who refuses to perform the act that will gain him his father’s crown—we gain a shadow of an understanding of something “ineffable” and yet deeper than anything that can be offered by those who offer us little more than a devaluing oversupply of rituals and ritual texts. In the world of Shakespeare, the remnants of civilization simply wait for a new conqueror to weave back together the deep strains of “this scepter’d isle… this seat of Mars.” Whether or not we will have a new Henry IV, or must wait for Fortinbras to arise from the empires of the East, I suppose depends on what pockets of courage and honor remain in the West.

    Ever since the Puritans set foot in New England, Hamlet is also everyman. The inner torment and struggles that may in past epochs have been unique to the sovereign and his royal seers, now plague each man and woman and hobbit who choose to follow the way. Whether or not we chose the path of material increase (and associated violence) or choose being, is up to us.

    The Dao De Jing, or Book of the Way and its Power, can only be a guidebook for inner exploration and experience, not a textbook on how to rule, or worse, blueprint for a mantic printing press. In the way, as we accord ourselves to this natural order that is beyond words, we serve as a magnetic point of attraction for a “way” truer than the latest magic tricks of financial wizards and political puppet masters. Which side do we stand on? As Hamlet says, “That is the question.”

    • Joel Dietz (@fractastical) says:

      Dear Bill,

      Thanks for the rewordings and I hope you don’t mind if I reuse some of your amendations later myself. I don’t notice any misreadings, although it is clear that there is a rather serious lacunae in the sense that I do not actually exposit the potentially positive “metaphysic” which exists in classical antiquity, certain Daoist streams, and neo-Platonic readings, and simply rely on literary references and references to other more extensive treatments of past political theologies. I expect to fill this gap in the near future and I hope it will be stimulating, if not necessarily satisfying.

      Also, if there are any questions that come out of your reading, please let me know and I will be happy to take a stab at answering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>